Breakout Sophomore Formula: Karnowski, Carrera ready to soar

Thursday August 22nd, 2013

Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski barely played his freshman year, but showed glimpses of being a centerpiece scorer.
William Mancebo/Getty Images

The Breakout Sophomore Formula is back for a fifth try -- the goal being to identify future stars who didn't stand out in traditional box scores as freshmen, but had tempo-free stats indicative of success.

The formula tilts more toward obscurity than obviousness. To qualify, a player cannot have averaged much more than 20 minutes per game as a freshman. But while he was on the floor, he had to use a go-to-guy's share of his team's offensive possessions (around 24 percent or higher) with a respectable level of efficiency (an ORating of at least 100.0, or one point per possession). The underlying theory, as first proposed by Basketball Prospectus, is that go-to-guys tend to act like it from the start of their careers, even in limited playing time. "Players who are not very involved in the offense," Ken Pomeroy wrote for BP in 2007, "tend to stay that way."

I'll keep applying the formula as long as it keeps hitting at a decent rate -- and its 2012-13 picks played well enough. The headliner, VCU's Treveon Graham, went from a 7.0-point scorer as a freshman to a 15.1-point scorer as a sophomore, emerging as one of the nation's better volume shooters. UC-Santa Barbara's Alan Williams transformed from a 6.9-point, 6.5 rebound rookie to a 17.1-and-10.7 All-Big West power forward. Point guard Andre Hollins helped lead Minnesota to the NCAA tournament, where he had 28 points in a second-round win over UCLA. La Salle's Jerrell Wright and Iowa's Aaron White had solid-but-not-spectacular sophomore years, while Cleveland State's Anton Grady had to medically redshirt after suffering a season-ending knee injury in just his sixth game. Consider him a repeat breakout pick for 2013-14.

Before we get to the new breakout picks, these are the high-usage sophomores I deemed too obvious, since they played major minutes as freshmen: Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Michigan State's Gary Harris, UCLA's Jordan Adams, Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, Xavier's Semaj Christon, Houston's Danuel House, Harvard's Siyani Chambers and Georgia State's R.J. Hunter. And then there's Michigan's Mitch McGary, who didn't play major regular-season minutes, but broke out in a big way in the NCAA tournament. If you watched him in March and April, you don't need a formula to tell you that he's an All-America-caliber power forward. That leaves room for six lesser-known names:

1. Przemek Karnowski, 7-1 center, Gonzaga

Freshman minutes per game: 10.7
Freshman points per game: 5.7
% of team possessions used: 27.0
Offensive efficiency rating: 102.5

Schimmick, or Shem, or Big Kar, or the Polish Hammer, or Mount Poland -- whatever you want to call him -- is pretty much the formula's perfect breakout candidate: He barely played as a freshman, but when he did, he played with the profile of a centerpiece scorer. The presence of two NBA-bound bigs, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, ahead of Karnowski on Gonzaga's depth chart limited him to spot minutes (as did his own conditioning issues). But he used possessions at a higher rate than Harris did, while shooting 56.7 percent from inside the arc, often as a result of getting great deep-post position.

With Olynyk and Harris gone, Karnowski is likely to start at center, and the Zags' offense should include heavy doses of post feeds to him from point guard Kevin Pangos. Karnowski had a confidence-boosting summer playing for Poland's national team in the European U20 championships (B Division), averaging 15.9 points and 11.9 boards in 27.0 minutes. The one thing that could prevent him from becoming a star is free-throw shooting: Karnowski's combined percentage from his freshman NCAA season and the Euro U20s was a ghastly 45.2 percent (47-of-104). If that doesn't change, opponents could employ hack-a-Shem strategies -- and he'd need to be pulled off the floor in crunch-time situations.

2. Michael Carrera, 6-5 power forward, South Carolina

Freshman minutes per game: 21.1
Freshman points per game: 9.9
% of team possessions used: 27.0
Offensive efficiency rating: 102.8

Last November, I wrote about Carrera's out-of-nowhere, 17-point, 15-rebound debut against Milwaukee, calling him a "two-star prospect with a five-star motor." He played like a madman in that game ... and then suffered a concussion and a hip injury that prevented him from truly taking off in the non-conference season. The fact that he played for one of the SEC's worst teams kept him in obscurity the rest of the season, although opposing fan-bases did sporadically taunt him about the abbreviated length of his shorts.

Carrera's potential is based on his activity rate, wingspan (7-2 despite his small frame) and oversized hands. His offensive and defensive rebounding percentages (16.0 and 25.0, respectively) put him in an elite class of glass-cleaners; he's like a Venezuelan version of Arsalan Kazemi, the undersized power forward who helped lead Oregon to the Sweet 16 this year, then was drafted in the second round by the Sixers. That Carrera was able to be an efficient, high-usage scorer with a limited offensive skill set is a good sign; if he develops a face-up jumper and keeps himself on the court by cutting down on reckless fouls, he could be a 14-and-10 guy as a sophomore.

3. A.J. Hammons, 7-0 center, Purdue

Freshman minutes per game: 23.1
Freshman points per game: 10.6
% of team possessions used: 24.9
Offensive efficiency rating: 103.2

Hammons is a prototypical high-ceilinged, inconsistent giant. He starred in a few of the Boilermakers' blowout losses -- most memorably putting up 30 points and five blocks against Indiana on Jan. 30 -- but had far too many single-digit clunkers. In February, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo remarked to the Indianapolis Star that while Hammons could wow you, he "probably has to get a motor."

If Hammons can rev up on a regular basis as a sophomore, he'll be quite valuable. His usage rate in '12-13 was similar to that of former Purdue star JaJuan Johnson's from his sophomore and junior seasons, and Hammons' block rate of 8.7 was better than anything Johnson ever posted. (It was also the second-highest in the Big Ten last season, after Ohio State's Amir Williams.) It also seems possible that Hammons did all this without even listening much to the Boilers' coaches. Here's a simultaneously alarming and promising quote he gave this summer: "I've learned from our coaching staff and from watching film that I need to pay more attention during games."

4. D'Andre Wright, 6-9 power forward, Tulsa

Freshman minutes per game: 16.8
Freshman points per game: 8.5
% of team possessions used: 26.3
Offensive efficiency rating: 106.1

Danny Manning had an impeccable track record of grooming post players while serving as an assistant at his alma mater, Kansas. Wright could very well be Manning's first successful project at Tulsa. Wright's freshman-year tempo-free stats -- including impressive offensive- and defensive rebounding percentages of 12.4 and 21.7 -- are similar to those posted by Omar Samhan as a freshman at St. Mary's in 2007, and he went on to become one of the nation's best mid-major centers.

Wright has reportedly added more than 20 pounds of muscle from his freshman-year arrival weight, to get up to 247, and with minutes being freed up due to the departure of frontcourt starter Kauri Black (a graduate transfer whose eligibility has expired), a breakout could be imminent. The wild card is the return of small forward Rashad Smith, who led the Golden Hurricane in scoring through their first four games before suffering a season-ending injury. If he and promising sophomore guard James Woodard dominate the ball, Wright will have to serve as a third scoring option. (Not that that's a terrible thing. I'm just rooting for the full breakout.)

5. Mike Tobey, 6-11 center, Virginia

Freshman minutes per game: 13.9
Freshman points per game: 6.8
% of team possessions used: 25.9
Offensive efficiency rating: 109.1

Tobey can't be a star yet -- not with ACC Player of the Year frontrunner Joe Harris serving as Virginia's offensive focal point and the very underrated Akil Mitchell anchoring its frontcourt. But Tobey's freshman-year numbers suggest he can emerge as a valuable rotation player, if not a valuable starter, for a Cavaliers team that deserves to be ranked in the top 15 of preseason polls. He outplayed Lottery Pick Alex Len in an overtime win over Maryland on March 10, closed the season with two quality performances in the NIT, and earned a spot on the U.S. Under-19 team this summer. He seems ready to play a key supporting role on an NCAA tournament team in '13-14, then become the centerpiece of Virginia's offense in '14-15.

A sixth pick that requires bending the formula: Sam Dekker, 6-7 small forward, Wisconsin

Freshman minutes per game: 22.3
Freshman points per game: 9.6
% of team possessions used: 21.8
Offensive efficiency rating: 116.7

Dekker didn't use enough possessions as a freshman to fit the formula, but there are a few reasons for making an exception: His average usage rate over the Badgers' final three games was 31.7 percent, which is super-go-to-guy material, and the guy who took the bulk of UW's shots last season, Ryan Evans, was a senior. It does not seem irresponsible to project Dekker as UW's clear No. 1 scoring option as a sophomore. If he maintains a similar level of efficiency, he'll be in the running for All-Big Ten honors -- and possibly the NBA draft, where he's viewed as late-first-round material. When that kind of breakout is looming, I'm willing to bend the rules.

(All offensive rating and usage stats from

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